First thing's first - I've never sat through and finished either of the other Suikoden games. So this whole review comes from the perspective that many gamers will be taking, and that's as a first-time experience with the series. If you've ever played the first two, or are an avid fan, just know that everything said still applies and only gets better with the more you know.
Suikoden III is not for the faint of heart or easily-bored. The whole thing is very text-heavy and plot driven, driving major story elements home three times over from different perspectives. What makes the game so interesting, and at the same time overwhelming, is the fact that you can play three main characters as all of the same events unfold. A burning of a town will seem like a ruthless action to one, but a desperate attempt to draw attention away from fellow troops to another.
It takes all these smaller views to see the larger picture in Suikoden III, so that you'll begin to realize that war and actions of war are half of the time based on half of the 'truth' given - and that's usually in the best-case scenario.
Sounds confusing? Well, at a glance it should; but you'll get plenty of time to sort the story out. Choose between Chris, Geodde, or Hugo and see the same story unfold through different eyes. Hugo 's the stereotypical heroic youth, brought up in a small village and on a quest to protect his homeland. Chris is the "Silver Maiden" of the Zexen Empire, a strategic wonder at such a young age and a person of boundless honor and loyality. Then there's Geodde, a captain of a small group after the 'Fire Bringer' group, whose past and motivations are clouded in uncertainty. How these three go about bringing change to a war-torn world and coming together to fight for a better future is completely up to you to find out.
Like any good RPG - especially one about war - battles are an essential element.The setup here is confusing at first, but you soon appreciate the depth at hand. Your party consists of 6 characters broken up into 3 pairs. In battle, you can issue commands to each pair, but not to each individual. The usual list of actions are present; attack, rune (magic), defend, item - you get the idea. Issue an order that's character specific though (like have character X cast a spell), and the other member of the pair is left to their own devices. This means an aggressive character won't sit still when left alone and likewise, a defensive character won't go out in the fray.
Here's where the strategy sets in - not only do you have to balance a good pair together based on stats and abilities, but also behavior. For each magic user, make sure you have someone strong and defensive covering the front; for someone who's a good front fighter, another aggresive character could go a long way for applying pressure. Even though it sounds a bit complex and cumbersome, I thought the battle system was very fun and innovative, a change from the usual menu-mashing that RPGs have been providing as of late.
There are even more gameplay aspects to add flavor to the mix: being able to buy and sell goods to turn a profit, one-on-one duels, massive clashes between armies, and so on. But the biggest draw to any Suikoden is the search for characters, and this is no exception. 108 individually stylized and characterized members can join your group, with some as easy to recruit as just walking up and talking to them. Others are sidequests within their own right; so being bored or finding the game too linear just means you're not out there recruiting enough. Finding all 108 characters adds enough longevity and diversity that the game will never be played-out.
"Played-out" may be just the term to describe the graphics, though. Certainly not ugly, but certainly not cutting-edge, Suikoden III offers colorful, lush 3D visuals that from time to time feel a bit first-gen on the PS2. There's a good amount of slowdown in populated areas, when big spells are cast, or whenever things get too cluttered. On the other hand, everything is built so clean and detailed that you'll wonder whether to be underwhelmed or impressed by the visuals. What really drives the visual appeal home, though, has got to be the aesthetic and design - everything is fun to stare at. You could even say it has the same feel as Skies of Arcadia: it may not be the most technically advanced game on the console, but you can't help but look in wonder at all the little things.
In a way, the same thing could be said for the audio end. Although the opening score is fit to be in a movie, the rest of the soundtrack doesn't hit with the same impact. The music can go from nice and soothing to frantic and upbeat, and the tunes stay just outside the range of being memorable. Sound effects are a whole different story - if it should be there, it will be there: The click-clack of running across marble floors, the clatter of armor just from walking or moving, and so many more samples that pay attention to detail in sound. Very impressive.
When you add it all up, Suikoden III is worth the price of admission. It has a great tale to be told and does so with a flow that'll take you up and never let you go. Not to mention the gameplay itself is different enough from the RPG-norm that it can stand out and impress you. So if you like RPGs, love the series, or just need a game to get you through the long winter months, this is it.
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